On the Alienation of Academic Labour and the Possibilities for Mass Intellectuality

There is a great new issue of TripleC (communication, capitalism and critique) out on Academic Labour, Digital Media and Capitalism.

I have an article in there on academic alienation, which scopes the terrain for the book on which I am working for Palgrave Macmillan. The article also points towards some work I have done on Mass Intellectuality.

The abstract is given below. I have then appended my thinking about the structure for my book.


As one response to the secular crisis of capitalism, higher education is being proletarianised. Its academics and students, increasingly encumbered by precarious employment, debt, and new levels of performance management, are shorn of autonomy beyond the sale of their labour-power. Incrementally, the labour of those academics and students is subsumed and re-engineered for value production, and is prey to the twin processes of financialisation and marketisation. At the core of understanding the impact of these processes and their relationships to the reproduction of higher education is the alienated labour of the academic. The article examines the role of alienated labour in academic work in its relationship to the proletarianisation of the University, and relates this to feelings of hopelessness, in order to ask what might be done differently. The argument centres on the role of mass intellectuality, or socially-useful knowledge and knowing, as a potential moment for overcoming alienated labour.

The alienated academic

Alienation is a means of critiquing academic identity and academic labour, and of providing insights into the development of alternative forms of praxis. This is a critical way into a discussion of the abolition of academic labour and the role of public intellectuals in the generation of mass intellectuality. In order to connect the realities of the transnational restructuring of higher education in the Global North to academic labour as it is revealed in response to the secular crisis of capitalism, this book offers a mechanism both for articulating what alienation inside the University looks like from the perspective of the academic, and for developing alternative forms of autonomy. This takes the contested idea of the University as a public good one step further, by focusing on the Marxist term of alienation, in order to tie academic autonomy to co-operative alternatives through critical theory. In this way, the book enables student-activists, academics and practitioners in worker and informal education spaces to critique their own practices and to reveal their struggle against objectification or their struggle for subjectivity.

The structure of the book is in three parts. The first part considers the terrain of academic labour, and consists of chapters on Crisis and Alienation. The first details the mechanisms through which the secular crisis of capitalism is restructuring academic labour. The second situates Marx’s analysis of estrangement, alienation, fetishisation and reification against academic labour. It does this in terms of a focus on the activity of production, in its relationship to material, metaphysical and philosophical conceptualisations. As a result, a dialectical understanding of the layers of objectification, separation, mediation and identity-development will emerge.

In the second part, the terrain of academic alienation is analysed, in terms of: Knowledge (the products of academic labour); Profession (academic labour-power); Weltschmerz (academic self); and Identity (species-being). Here the relationship between subjectivity and objectification, use and exchange, and the potential for new forms of humanism related to the functions of academic knowledge are developed. One focus is on the internalisation of specific behaviours that are disciplinary and which become a key outcome for the system of production, with concomitant manifestations of physical and psychological distress.

In the final, concluding section on a terrain for overcoming alienation, there are two chapters on Indignation and Autonomy. Indignation focuses upon the role of intellectual labour in a range of transnational struggles for an alternative form of social metabolic control. Pivoting around counter-hegemonic and anti-power, the focus is upon the movement of dignity in the development of revolutionary subjectivity. In Autonomy, this is developed in order to critique the idea of autonomy, in light of the duality that, first, Capital is the automatic subject searching to secure permanent self-valorisation, and second, that labour’s search for autonomy-beyond-labour – the abolition of itself – makes it the crisis of capital. This work questions the potential for the social, collectivised use of academic labour, through the liberation of socialised skills, practices and knowledge from inside the University.

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